Not a DAFy Idea

October 20, 2010 | 11:24 am
Nickolas Roth

Last month, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report titled, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: How the Country Can Profit and Become More Secure by Getting Rid of Its Surplus Weapons-Grade Uranium.” The report makes eight recommendations, mostly addressing how to handle highly enriched uranium stored in various areas within the nuclear weapons complex. The last section of the report makes recommendations on how to accelerate the rate at which the U.S. dismantles nuclear warheads.

As the Obama administration pursues its nuclear security agenda, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has made a significant effort to highlight its dismantlement activities. However, this effort has not included a substantial increase in dismantlement rates.

POGO argues that using the Device Assembly Facility (DAF) at the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site) could increase dismantlement rates.  There are certainly benefits to this idea, but POGO does not provide a lot of detail about the DAF, how it could be used to increase dismantlement, or potential problems for this scheme.

The DAF was originally built in the 1980s to assemble warheads before they were detonated in a nuclear test. According to NNSA Documents, DAF is a 10,000 square meter facility made up of 30 individual steel-reinforced concrete buildings connected by a rectangular racetrack corridor”“The entire complex, covered by compacted earth, spans an area the size of eleven football fields.”

Because the United States has observed a testing moratorium since 1992, the DAF was never used for its intended purpose. According to recent DOE planning documents, the DAF is currently used “in support of weapon dismantlement, treaty transparency, Broken Arrow disposition, dynamic material property experiments, SNM [special nuclear material] storage and criticality studies.”

However, the bays and cells at the DAF are the same bays and cells used at the Pantex Plant (the only current location where warheads are dismantled) for assembling and disassembling warheads. In 2005, when the Bush administration was pursuing the Reliable Replacement Warhead, the Department of Energy suggested using the DAF for assembling the new warheads.

Logically, if the DAF can be used to assemble a warhead, it can most likely also be used for disassembly. A 2002 Arms Control Today article argued that, with its five warhead assembly cells and seven bays, the DAF could potentially have 20% of the capacity of the Pantex facility. This could potentially mean hundreds of additional dismantlements per year.

Converting DAF to a dismantlement facility would likely require some modifications and upgrades. For example, this past September the Defense Nuclear Safety Board (DNFSB), which was established by Congress to provide safety oversight of the nuclear weapons complex, wrote a letter to NNSA voicing concern because the facility’s fire suppression system might not be reliable in the event of a fire. This issue and potentially others would need to be addressed. But POGO’s idea has merit. The possibility of using this existing facility makes sense and should be investigated. The administration or congress should call for an independent review of its utility, environmental and health impacts, required modifications, and costs.